My Real Children

Jo Walton’s books are so, so good, and this may be my favorite of hers that I’ve read yet. And it’s the one that is the least fantastical. It’s a sort of alternate history, but focused on one life, so it reads like realistic fiction, with some departures from reality around the edges.

The book begins with an elderly Patricia Cowan in a memory care home. She knows where she is and who she is … sort of. She knows she’s Patricia and remembers her childhood and early adulthood, but then it gets muddy. She was married … or not married. She had four children … or three. Nuclear war broke out in the 1960s … or it didn’t.

The book follows Patricia’s memories through two versions of her life, and each one is filled with joy and tragedy. But the nature of her her suffering differs. On one path, her life is constricted in ways that it is not in the other. Yet the more connected and open life has complications that do not exist in the more constricted life.

I cared deeply for both versions of Patricia (Pat and Trish). In both lives, she is a person who wants to do good, who enjoys teaching, who gets involved in her community. I couldn’t bear the thought of one version of her not being real. Both seemed so authentic, and all of her choices made sense in the context of the life she ended up having. A case could be made that one life has a great deal more happiness than the other, but it also has some huge tragedies. And both lives have considerable value.

An interesting element of the book is how history itself is different in the two versions of Patricia’s past. It hardly seems plausible that one choice made by one woman could be the linchpin of history, but Patricia’s life touches many people (a few who are quite well known), and if she caused someone to make a different choice that led someone else to make a different choice that led someone else to make a different choice, the consequences could be immense. It’s the butterfly effect. Patricia, as a teacher, a writer, an activist, a parent, a neighbor, and a friend, had the opportunity to effect many people, even if in small ways. And I think Walton is playing around with that idea, especially as the book concludes.

This weekend, as I was reading this book, I kept also listening to the music of Stephen Sondheim. And for some reason, this book kept me coming back to “No One Is Alone.” In My Real Children, Patricia is her own person, but every choice she makes touches the world. And the choices others make touch her. This is a book about connection, even those we can’t see. And it is a beautiful and devastating story.

 

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Harrow the Ninth

This, the second book is Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series, follws Harrowhark Nonagesimus, as she adjusts to life as a Lyctor, serving the Emperor of the Nine Houses, following the events of Gideon the Ninth. Sort of.

It becomes clear to readers very quickly that something isn’t quite right. A lot of the chapters are written in second person, directed to Harrow herself. But these are interspersed with flashbacks to Harrow’s time at Canaan House, where she underwent the tests to become a Lyctor. Except, there’s no Gideon, just Ortus, her original cavalier. What in the world is going on?

Gideon the Ninth was pretty confusing at the start, but this is even more so because what is happening makes absolutely no sense. But it’s obvious that it’s not supposed to make sense, so I was much more able to go with it and experience Harrow’s emotional journey on the two timelines. She struggles with her training and with learning who to trust in both timelines. And she’s up against some perilous foes. In the “present” storyline, it seems that something isn’t quite right in her ascension to Lyctor status, which makes her task even harder.

As is the case with Gideon, the story gets quite dark and violent, and this book lacks Gideon’s wise-cracking attitude, but I really didn’t miss it, as much as I enjoyed her voice in the previous book. Harrow’s relationship with Ianthe of the Third House involves enough banter to keep the story from being all grim all the time. And, overall, I was too drawn in by the mystery of the book’s construction to need the wise-cracks. I think I actually liked this better than I did Gideon the Ninth.

The answer to the mystery was not a total surprise, but the revelation of it was an emotional gut-punch. The novel also answers some other mysteries from the first book and introduces some new ones as the characters delve further back into their own histories and the history of the Nine Worlds. The next book, Nona the Ninth, is coming next fall, to be followed by Alecto the Ninth. Now I just have to hold I hold enough of the story in my head to enjoy the next book when it comes.

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Tyrannia: And Other Renditions

The short stories in this collection by Anya Johanna DeNiro are enjoyably dark and weird, sometimes a little too weird, in fact. But the stories that hit me right were so great that I don’t really mind the stories that didn’t.

A lot of the stories involve a world that is like our, but not quite, or they require the reader to look at the world in a different way. For example, there’s the title story, about a revolutionary who is killed that focuses on the decay of his body and the way the natural world and then the empire itself feed off him. There’s a story of a group of students who kidnap a scholar whose writing on torture became a handbook on how to do it correctly. And the house they take him to has underground tunnels where something unexplained lurks — what’s there is never explained, but it gets weird. Weird horrors alongside mundane horrors.

My favorite story, “Cudgel Springs” has a mom giving her kid a humorous but sometimes unsettling pep talk on the way to summer camp:

For starters, it helps to dress like everyone else and speak like your friends. Or don’t speak at all if that floats your boat. Which is easier if you don’t have friends. It’s not advised where you are going. Finding friends, that is. I know this, I lurked there in my salad days. Don’t self-edit, but avoid embarrassment. Don’t assume everyone is staring at you because you’re crazy. You might be crazy, but that’s probably not why they’re staring at you.

There’s also a terrific story called “The Philip Sidney Game” about a man who witnesses a car accident from a plane as it is landing. But it turns out that the man is a character in a story that the author forgot all about and now doesn’t know how to resolve. The looping nature of this story was a lot of fun.

A lot of the stories, though, were too weird for me to follow. Many are set in a post-apocalyptic future where the rules are entirely different and even the dominant life forms on the planet have changed. But, for me, I couldn’t figure out the world well enough in the space of a short story to get anything out of it. Lots of intriguing ideas, but they don’t go anywhere much. The good stories, though, made the collection worth reading.

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Mister Impossible

The second book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Dreamer trilogy finds Ronan and Hennessey traveling with Bryde, a sort of dreaming guru, as they try to escape the Moderators who are hunting down and killing anyone who, like Ronan, Hennessey, and Bryde, have the power to bring things from their dreams into the real world. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the trio of Dreamers have grown in their abilities, but the Moderators have Carmen Farooq-Lane and the visionary Lilian helping them track the team, and they have lots of narrow escapes. Meanwhile, Ronan’s older brother Declan is trying to take care of their little brother Matthew while getting to know Jordan, Hennessey’s double.

I spent about the first quarter to third of this book trying to get reacclimated to the world of the book. The first book in the series, Call Down the Hawk, introduces lots of characters and puts Ronan, from Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, into an entirely new situation that ended in a cliffhanger. But I’d forgotten a lot, and it seems that this book skipped ahead a little, adding to my confusion. This is the problem of reading a series as it comes out. I also think there’s maybe one element too many in this series. It’s chock full of story.

Once I got acclimated, I was interested in the story, and this book brings in some new developments that were pretty exciting. For example, there’s the idea of art that enables those who Dreamers bring into the world to continue living after their Dreamers die. This is an amazing development that motivates Jordan to step beyond her career as an art forger to create something new and powerful. There’s also the idea of waking up the ley lines so that Dreamers are better able to Dream.

Thematically, a lot of the book is concerned with how to be a good person who takes care of others while also taking care of your own needs. Most of the major characters have to figure out how to walk this line and some are having an easier time of it than others. But it’s not easy for anyone. It’s especially different when a character goes down what appears to be a self-destructive path because it seems like the better one, for whatever reason.

I also enjoyed that one of the book’s big climactic scenes took place very near where I grew up. Maggie Stiefvater lives in Virginia, and a lot of landmarks that I know show up in her books, but I really didn’t expect to ever see Smith Mountain dam figure so heavily in a novel!

Like the last book, this one ends with a big reveal and a cliffhanger. The final book is supposed to come out next year, and I hope I remember enough of this one to be able to pick up what’s going on right away.

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The Kiss Quotient

A lot of my reading friends have been enjoying romance novels lately, but I’ve been hesitant to give the genre much attention, not so much out of snobbery but because I already enjoy too many genres. I don’t need another to try to keep up with! However, my annoyance with the lack of story in so many recent books and my desire for something where I know things will likely turn out okay got me thinking that maybe I should give a romance novel a try. A lot of friends have enjoyed Helen Hoang’s book, so when I saw it at the bookstore, I decided I might as well give it a try. And it was so sweet and fun!

The premise of the novel is that Stella, a successful econometrist, decides she needs some help with her sex life. She’s autistic and tends to get really tense and uncomfortable whenever she has sex, and she assumes that this is why none of her relationships last. (In truth, she’s dated selfish lovers who don’t care about her pleasure, but she doesn’t really recognize that.) So, on impulse, she hires an escort named Michael and asks him to teach her to be better at sex.

As you can imagine, the story gets pretty steamy, because so much centers specifically on how Stella responds to sex. It is extremely explicit about their sex life. But, for me, the real heart of the story is in seeing Stella and Michael learn to take care of each other beyond the bedroom. Because, again, as you can imagine, the relationship doesn’t stay strictly professional, although both Stella and Michael have a hard time seeing what the other is feeling, largely because of their own insecurities and their inability to be honest about their personal backgrounds. There were several points in the story where I genuinely thought they’d had a mutual break-through and realized their feelings for each other, but every time they each ended up back in the land of uncertainty. I wanted to shake them every time! That feeling of annoyance was tempered by the fact that I know romances end happily, and I could see the value of the HEA trope reading this.

If I were to put my critical-thinking hat on, I could find things to complain about. Stella and Michael have such strong feelings so quickly, for example. There are some coincidences that are way too much. And I almost gave up on the book in this first chapter because conversations Stella had with her family and with a co-worker about made me want to crawl out of my skin. (Turns out I was supposed to feel uncomfortable.) The thing is, this is a happy little fantasy about people who want to give and receive love. If you buy into it (and some people won’t), those potential complaints just pass right by. And that’s what happened for me.

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Gideon the Ninth

Gideon Nav hates living in the House of the Ninth, and everyone there seems to hate her, even though they won’t let her just leave. When she finally gets close to actually escaping, Harrow, a necromancer and the heir to the Ninth House, manages, through some sneaky means of her own, to convince Harrow to come with her as she seeks to become the emperor’s next Lyctor. To become a Lyctor, Harrow will be tested, and she’ll need a skilled cavalier at her side. So Gideon and Harrow, along with seven other necromancer/cavalier pairs, gather at the First House’s home planet to face an undefined series of tests.

Gideon’s bad attitude about the whole thing reminds me a bit of Murderbot, as did the complicated plot. This book gets a lot darker than Murderbot, although Gideon never stops being a smartass about it all. As the book went on, I got a little more of a handle on the plot and the large cast of characters, but that took a while! For about a third of the book, the teams outside the Ninth were a sort of undifferentiated blur, but gradually each pair’s unique qualities and special skills start to emerge. And there is a character list at the beginning of the book, which helps a lot. (And here’s a helpful hint from me to you: The necromancers’ surnames are all derived from the number of their houses — Harrow Nonagesimus for the Ninth, Silas Octakiseron for the Eighth, Dulcinea Septimus … etc.)

As the danger increased and the nature of the book’s central mystery became clearer, I got pretty wrapped up in the story. Gideon and Harrow’s contentious relationship forces Gideon to turn to other characters for companionship. She develops something of a crush on necromancer Dulcinea, gets into some duels, and finds partners to help her solve the mysteries that keep emerging. The partnership between Gideon and Harrow, however, is the heart of the book, and by the end, I found myself more and more drawn to Harrow as a character. I like how she just gets to business and could relate to how she keeps to herself except when collaboration is necessary (and it turns out she has some good reasons to be mistrustful).

The good news is that Tamsyn Muir’s next book in the series focuses on Harrow. And there are two more books planned after that. The world of this novel is clearly complex enough to warrant more books. By the end, it was clear that this story barely scratched the surface of what is happening, and many more mysteries and secrets are left to uncover.

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Jane and Prudence

I’ve been trying to enhance my reading experiences by reading more books by authors I already enjoy, instead of continuing to try new authors. (New authors are great and all, but more of a risk. Maybe I need less risk these days.) So I’ve read my third Barbara Pym novel and enjoyed it a great deal (although Excellent Women will be hard to beat).

Jane and Prudence is the story of two close friends who got to know each other at Oxford but who’ve since gone their separate ways, visiting to catch up from time to time. Jane is in her 40s, married to a vicar and newly arrived at a country parish where she’s not sure she’ll fit in. Jane was briefly a tutor at Oxford, which is how she got to know Prudence, who is now almost 30, works as a writer’s assistant, and has had a string of unsuccessful relationships. Currently, she’s pining after her married employer, Dr. Grampian. For her part, Jane hopes to meet someone in her new village who will be suitable match for Prudence.

One of the things I liked about this book is that the characters all have opinions, sometimes strong ones, about other people’s lives, but, for the most part, they let them go ahead and do their thing. Maybe Jane doesn’t love that Prudence has entertained a local widower in her dressing gown, but that’s really Prudence’s business. And maybe Prudence thinks Jane doesn’t do enough to fix herself up, but that’s Jane’s business. They are there to listen to each other and offer support or help if it is clearly needed or requested. This way of being in relationship felt very real to me. And it does create some good moments of comedy to see people’s behaviors rub up against people’s opinions, especially when we know that the opinions aren’t likely to threaten the relationship.

And lest you think that this is a book about ladies judging each other, I want to be clear that both Jane and Prudence spend just as much time reflecting on their own choices as they do thinking about what others are doing. Jane worries continually about how to be a good clergy wife, and she is all too aware of how others may perceive her. She also wistfully thinks about her past as a scholar, wondering what might have been if she’d stayed on that path. It’s not that she’s unhappy. She just wonders if she could be more herself in a different life. This sense of ambivalence is something I thought Pym captured perfectly in Excellent Women, where the main character is uncertain about whether she ought to marry.

Prudence is similarly ambivalent, not necessarily about singleness vs marriage, but about the particular relationships she’s in. She’s not yet ready to settle down and accept spinsterhood, but she hasn’t found a suitable husband either. The one romantic relationship she has in the book is fine, not great, but not bad either. It’s not bad enough for her to want to end it, but not exciting enough for her to fight to preserve it. I think it’s more the idea of the relationship that she’s interested in. And that seems very true to life.

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Heft

When I posted about my appreciation for Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, my friend Care suggested that I try Heft, which she liked much better than The Unseen Worlda book that I ultimately found a little disappointing. I became a little skeptical of when I saw that one of the main characters is a 550-pound recluse. So many things could go wrong with that! But I ended up liking it, and I thought that Moore wrote about the character’s weight in a way that took what was behind the weight seriously without making the weight, in and of itself, into a crisis.

Arthur Opp, one of the book’s two first-person narrators, is a former English professor who lives alone, making contact with pretty much nobody, and never leaving his Brooklyn house. Almost his only contact with the world is the occasional letter from Charlene, a former student, and those have dried up lately. But when Charlene suddenly calls imploring Arthur to help her son get ready for college, he gets motivated to take some steps to improving his situation — the situation being not his weight, but the mess he’s allowed his home to become over the years of holing himself up. He hires a cleaner to come and ends up liking having her around.

Meanwhile, our other narrator, Charlene’s son Kel, is in his senior year of high school at an elite private school that he attends because his mother was once its secretary, and now that she’s no longer able to hold a job, he’s allowed to remain because of his athletic prowess. His mother dreams of him going to college, but he hopes to be recruited right into the pros in baseball. His mother’s drinking and health are a constant worry, and he wants to take care of her while pursuing his dreams.

Both Arthur and Kel are tremendously likable and flawed people. And much of the book’s tension is in wondering whether and how they will ever find each other and help each other. I liked how Moore handled this aspect of the story, although I’ll admit I also wanted more of these two together, but that’s only because I could see their potential as supports for each other. It seemed like they’d honor each other’s independence while giving each other someone to care about and receive care from.

As for Arthur’s weight, it’s not a non-issue, but, as I said, it is not his primary problem. He’s always been plump, but he has become extremely fat because he eats much too much and does not move much. His problem is not fatness but making eating his primary coping mechanism and choosing to lock himself away from the world. What he needs is to connect with people and get out into the world. The book doesn’t come across as saying he needs to lose weight (although he might in fact do so if his life changes). There are some descriptions of his body and eating habits that some readers may find frustrating, but I read them as sort of matter-of-fact descriptions of his life, and, again, they never felt like Moore’s main concern. Overall, I appreciated the way she wrote about Arthur and about Charlene’s addictions, as seen through Kel’s eyes. There was a sense of care throughout the narrative that made me care about the characters.

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Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil

In my post about Caste, I mused over whether I might be better off reading some older books about race, my thinking being that books separated from current vocabulary and specific fights might feel less like a retread. And Darkwater by WEB Du Bois, published in 1920, served that purpose well, partly because it covers so many questions that are still, tragically, very relevant, but Du Bois, being from a different time, frames them differently, which, perhaps, will enable me to do the same as I think and talk about racism, sexism, class, and other issues that come up in this essay collection.

Some of the essays are very of their time and place and perhaps of limited value to contemporary readers not immersed in the history of the era in which Du Bois wrote. This was the case, I felt, in his writing about Africa, where things have changed so very drastically in 100 years. But other essays were astonishing in their relevance.

Throughout the book, he focuses on systemic injustices, primarily within the economic system. Race is one of many areas where he sees these injustices appear. He writes also about class and sex and how they all interconnect. In “Of Work and Wealth,” for instance, he talks about how the people who make the most money are not the ones who contribute the most to society, how work need not be the primary aim of life, and how the poor are not to blame for their situation:

Thus the shadow of hunger, in a world which never needs to be hungry, drives us to war and murder and hate. But why does hunger shadow so vast a mass of men? Manifestly because in the great organizing of men for work a few of the participants come out with more wealth than they can possibly use, while a vast number emerge with less than can decently support life.

And in “On the Ruling of Men,” he writes about the importance of having a system where all voices are heard and where every person is given a chance to thrive.

His essay “The Damnation of Women” is remarkable. There, his thesis is:

Only at the sacrifice of their intelligence and the chance to do their best work can the majority of modern women bear children.
All womanhood is hampered today because the world in which it is emerging is a world that tries to worship both virgins and mothers and in the end despises motherhood and despoils virgins.
The future woman must have a life work and economic independence. She must have knowledge. She must have the right of motherhood at her own discretion.

In “The Immortal Child,” he writes about how a lack of commitment to education, particularly of Black children, has led to an immense waste of genius. He also calls for free college and vocational training for all, writing that:

No nation tomorrow will call itself civilized which does not give every single human being college and vocational training free and under the best teaching force procurable for love or money.

Each essay pulls at another area where the U.S. as a whole (sometimes the world as a whole) has failed a large segment of his people. Race is one focus, and probably the one that gets the most attention overall. But what Du Bois presents is a clear vision of equality. The fact that this book is more than 100 years old is discouraging in that so many of these arguments still have to be made. I don’t know why it’s encouraging to remember that most of what I and others today want is something people have been calling for for generations, but it is encouraging. I think it helps to feel supported by history itself.

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The Sundial

When a book begins with a funeral with a man who died because his mother pushed him down the stairs, and everyone is totally matter-of-fact about it and not at all interested in consequences or fretful that this woman is now apparently in charge of the family, you know you’re in for a ride. And that is what The Sundial by Shirley Jackson is. The Halloran family is together for the funeral of Lionel, who was (and I cannot emphasize this enough) pushed down the stairs by his mother, when Aunt Fanny has a vision of her long-dead father telling her that an apocalypse is coming. So, of course, the thing for the family to do is to prepare to hunker down in the family home, so they’ll be safe and ready to begin a new world.

What is wild about this novel is how everyone just accepts the strange situation — or seems to, anyway. The family and a select few friends begin storing up supplies — or letting Fanny store them. One of them begins looking into a glass for details of the coming crisis. They plan a farewell party for the village. Some may be skeptical about the vision, but they mostly, as a group, go along with it.

Jackson milks this whole situation for all its comic potential. Overall, the book is much more of a comedy than The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The characters engage in banter that is often quite savage. Each person has their own agenda and motivations, some of which are clearer than others, and it’s fun to watch them bump up against each other. The comedy is very dark, with murder and apocalypse always looming, but I found it hard to take any of it seriously. It’s am enjoyable book about preposterous people in a preposterous situation.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 3 Comments